Alameda County Supervisors never got state approval, now say outdoor dining must end

Under new state guidance updated on Thursday, dining in at restaurants in California, both indoor or outdoor, is not allowed unless a county gets a specific variance -  a fancy word for permission -  from the state Health Department. 

Back in June, several Bay Area counties including Contra Costa, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties applied for, and received, a variance. Alameda County did not.

At one of their meetings in June, Alameda County Board of Supervisors were supposed to vote to apply for a variance, but they decided not to.

Health spokesperson Neetu Balram says the reason was because the county had seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, and supervisors felt they needed to slow down the reopening process on June 29. At the time, they determined a variance was not needed to allow outdoor dining.

In the official Alameda County Health statement it explains:

"At the time, many other counties had applied for a variance alongside or shortly after opening outdoor dining without consequences, and Alameda County took that same approach."

The statement goes on to say that the county believes the state is now taking a more strict approach: "At that time the state did not differentiate dining guidance by indoor/outdoor as it now does. With the new guidance dated yesterday and enforcement actions observed last week in Santa Clara County, the state is demonstrating a new approach."

The enforcement actions they're referring to is the crackdown of the restaurants and bars in Morgan Hill a couple of weeks ago.

Now that the state guidance and enforcement has become more strict, the Alameda County Health officer believes they now need to apply for this variance to continue with outdoor dining.

"While Alameda County’s Health Officer Order allowed for outdoor dining, under this stricter State guidance, all restaurants, wineries and bars in Alameda County may only be open for drive-through or pick-up/delivery options," the health department said in a statement.

In a separate, but related note, if Alameda County had applied for a variance, it would have also allowed them to reopen the Oakland Zoo by now. San Francisco has a variance, their zoo is reopening.

Alternatively, the Oakland Zoo could also reopen if the California Health Department categorized it as an outdoor museum. Why it is not considered an outdoor museum is not clear. This is why some botanical gardens are now allowed to open in Alameda County, but not the zoo.

Balram said that after public outcry from Oakland Zoo supporters, the health department sent a letter to the State, asking it to please categorize it as an outdoor museum so it can reopen. They sent the letter Tuesday, July 7, and do not know when the state will respond.

On the restaurant issue, even counties on the COVID 19 watch list, like Contra Costa County, can get a variance to allow outdoor dining. Again, the key is having the variance. Alameda County Board of Supervisors will vote on applying for this variance at their July 14th meeting. They don’t know if or when the state will approve it.

In the meantime, restaurants like Oliveto’s café in Oakland and A16 on College Avenue, which have already built special outdoor patios, are stuck with offering just drive-through or pick-up for customers.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Joseph Dayyat, who owns the popular the Crepe Pan restaurant on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. “We brought the staff back, [for outdoor dining] what am I going to do with them?”

Dayyat also said the lack of information from the county was frustrating and harmful: “I found out about this on the news this morning,” he said, “Why would [the County Public Health Dept.] not tell us what to do? Give us some information, give us some advice?”

In downtown Hayward, the City began a program to closed off part of Main and B streets to vehicle traffic, to allow restaurants to set up tables and serve customers outdoors, every Saturday night from 2 to 10 p.m.

City Council member Francisco Zermeno said it had been a huge success and source of relief for struggling restaurants. Now, those plans appear to be on hold.

“It’s sad to not be able to do this again,” Zermeno said. “It doesn’t help our local economy or any local economy in any of our cities,” he said.